Be What They Need Me to Be

Coaches are by nature, very competitive. We love to win. Science suggests that the key to winning is the ability to stay focused on the task and in-the-moment. How well do you help your athletes to these things? Do your actions match your words? Are you the model of focus and control for the athletes, especially at those highly emotional and competitive times? Or do your words and behaviors sometimes distract?

For years before competitions and practices I would say a short prayer that went something like this, Lord, help me to be what they need me to be.

The science behind peak performance says that the chance of winning decreases as the focus on the need-to-win increases. Winning is nearly always the product of a well-executed process. We know how important “process” is. Indeed, it’s what we stress and try to engrain into our athlete’s minds. We know that a loss of focus will occur in the minds of the athletes during the competition. As coaches, if we’re honest with ourselves, maintaining focus is also a challenge for us. Competition can become very personal.

Hanson Bay, a psychologist with Sport Singapore speaks of time-traveling and mind-reading. Both ideas refer to mental constraints on an athlete’s ability to stay focused and “in the moment”. Time-traveling is when an athlete dwells on past mistakes or struggles with a fear of failure. Mind-reading occurs when an athlete worries about what others might be thinking, especially after a mistake occurs. Coach, how are your actions perceived after an athlete’s mistake? Help me to be what they need me to be.

I am extremely competitive. I enjoy the challenges that come from competition. I love the processes of “trying to get better.”  I love to learn…and I love the learning process – both for myself and for those around me. It is a joy to “teach” a competitive sport. A good friend and long-time successful football coach once said to me, “I don’t coach football.  I teach football.” His statement made me think about what, in fact, are we really doing when we are “coaching”. What is the true impact of our words and actions on the athletes we are with for those “in-the-moment” moments, and for the longer term? Help me to be what they need me to be. 

Leadership is simply behavior that influences. So what am I really teaching when I’m with the athletes? During calmer moments, as coaches, we realize that our focus must always remain centered on giving the athletes what they need in a competition…or practice, or anywhere else where we have influence. In those quiet moments, it’s easy to manifest our role as a significant influencer for the team. However, our influences are also felt during those highly emotional, competitive moments when the game is on the line and an athlete (in whom we have invested time and training) is called on to make the “right” decision or play. Competitive sport can teach any value we want it to – good or bad. These “in-the-moment” moments are powerful and salient. They also create memories and shape values for lifetime. Our influence in those moments carries on far longer than the final point or buzzer. I’ve often said, as a volleyball coach, that if the only thing our athletes learn in our program is “pass-set-hit”, then we have failed them miserably. Help me to be what they need me to be.

John Wooden, legendary men’s basketball coach at UCLA and winner of ten NCAA national championships in 12 years often illustrated life lessons through the recitation of poetry. This short poem frames the powerful and unique influence of the teacher (coach).

No written word, nor spoken plea
Can teach our youth what they should be.
Nor all the books on all the shelves
It’s what the teachers are themselves.

May we, during this holiday season, reflect and be mindful of how blessed we are for the opportunities given to us as coaches. May we truly, and eternally, be to our athletes and others around us, what they need us to be. 

Photo by: Harris Walker (CC BY 3.0)

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